Flanked by sky-high buildings and corporate architectures, the placid blue-green water bodies to the east of Kolkata have been quietly flushing out the city's waste for more than a century. While that description may invoke images of filthy, marshy, waste water, it's not quite so. If you've ever passed through the EM bypass that runs along the East Kolkata Wetlands, you may have spotted these wetlands that look like any other lake.
Now, some of you may be wondering - what are wetlands?
Technically, wetlands are simply areas that "occur where water meets land" (wetlands.org). Wetlands take up an approximate of 4-6% of the Earth's surface, while they cover nearly 3% of India"s total land area.
These distinctive ecosystems are a biodiversity hotspot, but they offer several other benefits too. Because wetlands are able to store an enormous amount of water in their sediments, soils, and vegetation, they play a vital role in absorbing heavy rainfall, providing a natural defence against floods.
Besides, they also act as a powerful sponge that sucks in large amounts of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that wetlands across the world capture about 35% of global terrestrial carbon. In Kolkata, the wetlands absorb over 60% of the carbon from the wastewater, which would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.
Originally, a crisscross of low-lying salt marshes and silted-up rivers, the Kolkata Wetlands is a now a vast patchwork of natural wetlands and man-made channels and embankments.
Stretched across 125 sq. km, the wetlands are one of the largest in the Ganga delta and are bordered by the satellite townships of Salt Lake and Newtown-Rajarhat, which has been expanding at a rapid pace over the past couple of decades. With the heavy population rise combined with economic and industrial growth, there's mounting pressure on the city's wastewater and sewage management.
Fortunately, in the form of these wetlands, the metropolis and its suburbs are blessed to have their very own natural urban wastewater treatment system. These wetlands process almost 198 million gallons of wastewater and sewage produced on a daily basis. As such, it is known as the world's largest organic sewage management system. Thanks to the wetlands, Kolkata - the 7th most populated city in India - is able to save a whopping Rs 4,680 million a year in sewage treatment costs.
Given its incomparable ability to treat urban wastewater, the East Kolkata Wetlands was declared as one amongst two most outstanding wetlands in the world on the World Water Day (22nd March). The wetlands was also named as a 'Wetland of International Importance' in 2002.
Additionally, Kolkata Wetlands have the unique distinction of being the largest "wastewater-fed aquaculture system" in the world. The treated water is channelled into ponds, locally called bheri, where it is recycled for pisciculture (fish farming) and agriculture. The bheris produce nearly 10,000 tonnes of fish each year, meeting close to 33% of the city's needs, while the vegetables grown in the wetlands contribute to 40-50% supply in the city markets.
With the rapid urban expansion, the city has been moving eastward towards the wetlands, due to which the wetlands have been gradually shrinking over the years. The Kolkata wetlands have been globally recognised for their invaluable services to the ecology of the city. And due to the rising concerns over the loss and destruction of wetlands and with a view to preserve it, the region was brought under the protection of the Ramsar Convention in 2002.
While the rate of depletion has reduced to some extent since then, the dangers are still looming with land encroachments and high rate of pollution endangering the region. For example, some of the most heavily polluted stretches in Kolkata lie alongside the wetlands. The effluents from tanneries in China Town along with other small-scale industrial effluents pour into the ponds and water bodies constituting the wetlands.
Very often, the rising pace of development is pointed out as the root cause of the problems around wetlands depletion. While that might be true to a certain degree, it's rather short-sighted and detrimental to put the blame on development, per se. Why? Because with the growing population and rising demands, the city has to strike a balance between development and ecological conservation, which includes saving its wetlands.
In the 21st century, the two of the biggest problems we face is 1) ensuring resources and proper living conditions for the growing population, and 2) saving the nature while we heavily depend on it to gather our resources. However, the way these two problems are often intertwined, it has led to the general notion that preserving the planet and developing the economy are mutually exclusive.
The main issue with this type of thinking is that it villainizes development. The fact, however, is that foregoing infrastructure and urban advancements can severely cripple an economy. Large-scale infrastructure projects enable economic growth, reduce the cost of transportation, and in turn, the cost of trade, which draws in investors.
Development of urban infrastructure also eases city traffic, boosts the quality of life for the citizens, and enhances the business prospects - everything a highly populous city like Kolkata needs in order to give residents a better and fulfilling future.In our efforts to save our wetlands, it is also important to realise that development is not just about concrete and steel. There are sustainable ways to foster development while protecting natural resources. So, how do we strike the balance? The key is to bring nature into our development plans.
With Kolkata wetlands playing their part in sewage management and agro-development, we are already a few steps ahead. The wetlands have a critical significance in supporting the livelihoods of thousands of people who are involved in fishing and agriculture. In fact, this wetlands-based agriculture is one of the reasons for a role in the city's economy.
There are ways to plan development around wetlands.
Building sustainable projects like rainwater harvesting, solar installations, renewable energy production, etc. can be a viable option to make sustainable use of wetlands. Canal-top solar power projects in Gujarat and other parts of the country are a great example of how water bodies can be turned into sites for clean energy generation.
The building of recreation and leisure zones around wetlands promote sustainable tourism
In the region, while also creating jobs and promoting local culture and products. The urban park in New Town called Eco-Park, which also houses luxurious cottages for stay and a family restaurant, overlooks the wetlands and is now a popular tourist attraction in the city. While this has been a great step in beautifying the wetlands, other projects too can be developed on this model.
The state government is taking initiatives to put a stop to encroachment and destruction of East Kolkata Wetlands. Recently, the West Bengal environment minister has declared wetlands conservation as the topmost priority. In the light of this statement, he also pointed out that Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has been demolishing unapproved and illegal under-construction buildings near the wetlands.
While there are various policies and regulations in place to protect the wetlands, stronger implementations need to happen. If the government comes together with conservation bodies and the citizens to build more resourceful projects, these valuable ecosystems can be preserved in a way that creates more opportunities for local communities and furthers overall development of the city.
With increasing population, Kolkata needs more green spaces, wetlands and ponds, parks and fields for sustainable development. There is a need to maintain, and if possible, increase the ratio of the population versus such open spaces.
One such idea can be declaring no concrete zones in our city where no permission for civil construction can take place except beautification. Kolkata urban planning can consider more vertical building development similar to New York or Singapore.
The path to save Kolkata wetlands without sacrificing development may not be an easy one. But if we look beyond development as merely an instrument of destroying nature, we'll be at a good place to start.
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